“Wilbury Crockett: The Teacher of a Lifetime”
by Beth Hinchliffe
With a career spanning five decades from World War II to Ronald Reagan’s election, and a life still remembered today, one of the most influential people in the second half of Wellesley’s 20th century was a slight, soft-spoken man of reason and grace, who rarely stepped beyond Wellesley High School’s Room 206 and the adjoining little English department office.
In 1944 Wilbury A. Crockett and his wife, Vera, came here from their home state of Maine, via a brief teaching stint in Connecticut. They never left. He taught English for 36 years (serving as department chair for 30) while she was the town’s children’s librarian. Together, they brought up their children Stephen and Deborah in, and welcomed students and colleagues to, a cozy Mozart- and book-filled cape on Forest Street.
When he died 50 years after his arrival, he had become a Wellesley icon. His name was synonymous with his impassioned and empowering vision of teaching. The library in the new high school was dedicated to him in 2012; “Crocketteers” still hold reunions. Why is a quiet English teacher so passionately remembered today, 78 years after he first entered Wellesley High, and 42 years after his retirement?
Let me start by sharing what being in Mr. Crockett’s classroom was like. It has been many years since I sat with him in Room 206, but I can still see how, decades before it became commonplace, he set up his classroom tables in a U-shape so we could discuss and debate as in college seminars. I see him walk in from his office through the connecting door, wearing his trademark and immaculate blazers (Harris Tweed in the winter, madras plaid in the warmer months) with neatly pressed khaki pants, and small, shiny penny loafers.
He ionized the room; completely commanded it, without needing to raise that exquisitely modulated voice. He stood behind a lectern and waited for silence. Then, with his melodious tone and delicate, tidy gestures, simply began. Others have Plato’s dialogues; we had Crockett’s.
“My great joy was in exciting the mind to the art of thinking,” he said. “I used the Socratic approach, setting up a dialectic: ‘Let us sit and reason together.’”
From the beginning, when he gave us Beowulf as our first assignment, he stood in front of teenagers who were awkwardly coming of age and treated us as equals with him on a journey full of promise—a discovery of ourselves as well as of the great books he presented to us as if they were his most cherished treasures.
Collectively he addressed us, sometimes beseechingly, as “people” (“People, what do you think drove Electra to her actions?”). Individually, we were always “Miss” and “Mr.” And he treated us as adults. He not only didn’t dismiss our questions, he challenged us to ask them, and to realize that there would not always be answers. In other classrooms we learned to memorize; in his classroom we learned to think.
He gave us his respect, and how hard we worked to prove that we deserved it. Looking back over more than half a century, Hal Kolb ’5 who became an English Professor at the University of Virginia, said, “I have a feeling that many of us are still trying to please Mr. Crockett.”
This man of fierce intellect and rock-solid integrity also became our moral North Star. Everything was intertwined: I’m not quite sure how he led us from Sophocles to the Vietnam War, from Milton to desegregation, but he did, and it resonated. We still have within us those values of social responsibility that we forged with him in that room, in that self-contained universe of discovery and possibility.
This is the man who wrote in my yearbook, “and let there be no purpose in life save the deepening of the spirit.”
Students often stayed with him for all three years—English 21, 31, and 41. Later, his course was “The Relationship of Art, Music, and Literature.” There were no grammar lessons, no quizzes on facts, and he was appalled by the very concept of teaching to a test. Each year he challenged his students to write a “thesis,” a college-level immersion into an aspect of literature—not a research paper but reasoned, original thinking. He only marked down for lazy scholarship.
He required that we obtain and use Wellesley College library cards; that we show up every day prepared; that we show respect to our classmates and to the literature; and, most especially, that we question everything, especially ourselves. He taught what he loved: ancient Greek literature, Dante, Chaucer, Dostoevsky, Thoreau, Yeats, Eliot, and also the most exciting new modern drama—anything that made us think.
“We wanted to go to his class every day, to make sense of the chaos of experience, to be articulate, to align ourselves with the right causes,” Kolb recalled. No one skipped Mr. Crockett’s classes, not even on the annual Senior Skip Day.
When I think of him now, I remember first his luminous pale blue eyes incandescent in that delicately chiseled face; eyes fixed with Jedi power on a student, or dancing with barely suppressed merriment, or flaming with a deeply tapped passion. Those eyes, always the eyes—“piercing” is a cliché, and if there were one thing which Mr. Crockett could not abide, it would be a tedious cliché—but they truly were piercing. Look at any picture of him and you’ll be riveted. In person they were urgent, compelling, even mesmerizing, locked and loaded in on you with laser-intensity.
He was also, in the words of the song that reached number one on the charts while I was in his classroom, our “bridge over troubled waters.” He was the one we talked to not just about literature or college plans, but also about our adolescent angst. He listened—oh, did he listen; listening was an aerobic sport for him. When our playful, delightful, gifted classmate Chriss Burguess was killed in a car accident, we found ourselves going to him just to try to help us make sense of something without sense. He grieved with us and for us. He was our lodestone, our counselor, and our priest.
And for 36 years, he was the conscience and soul of Wellesley High. “I look upon teaching as a mission in life,” he said. “I can’t imagine anything more enjoyable, and the joy has never left me. I can’t wait to get up in the morning to start. I love teaching, I feel almost messianic about it.”
It was clear that teaching was his calling— we were his calling. He was part Plato, part Lear, part Buddha, part Dumbledore. When I think of him, I recall a line from A Man for All Seasons which, of course, we first studied in room 206. In the play, Sir Thomas More is asked, “If I am a great teacher, who will know?” More replies: “You. Your students. God. Not a bad audience, that.”
His was a devout audience. We simply and uncritically adored this gracious gentleman of humility, elegant dignity, and compassion. We loved his humor, how he savored a witticism, throwing back his head and letting escape a single discreet whoop of laughter. We were fondly amused by moments when his eyes would open wide with almost child- like astonishment when he delighted in discovering something new.
And we worried about him, especially after he had to turn that legendary self-discipline (he rose at dawn every morning for a five-mile walk) to fighting back from three heart attacks. He was a proud man, but we knew he could be frail. So many worried about him that once when he became ill at school and was taken to the hospital by ambulance, The Wellesley Townsman put the reassuring follow-up story on the front page.
For all of his intellect and mildness, he was not an ivory-towered academic. Despair and illnesses of his own and of loved ones could darken those glittering eyes with a deep, wondering sadness. He volunteered on a suicide hotline; in his retirement he counseled troubled teens, recorded books for the blind, and helped out the Hospice of the Good Shepherd, which had nursed his “Vera dear.”
He confronted social injustices with indignation and snapping anger that tightened his gentle voice; even, famously, at the risk of his own job taking on the school committee and superintendent over their “folly” of bureaucratic policy change and intimidation.
And he didn’t seek comfort behind a safe desk. His classroom was, quite literally, the world. He imparted to us his urgency to experience, question, and try to understand it in all its contradictions, messiness, heartache, and joy. He took his “people” into Boston to plays, concerts, museums, lectures, art exhibits, and movies (he attended the opening night of Boyz n the Hood). Among his greatest delights were trips to England, which he and his wife led for his students. Once they even met the actor Sir John Gielgud.
One of his favorite adventures came from the ‘60s, when he attended a concert that was part of a summer fine arts institute where he was teaching. He didn’t know the singer but arrived early to get a good seat, bringing with him a book by Dylan Thomas to pass the time. A young woman joined him, a “very thoughtful hippie,” and they talked for almost an hour, he doing his best listening while, like his students at home, she deluged him with her fears and despair. Then she disappeared, only to emerge onstage as the headliner. He later received a note from her at home: “Bill, Baby — I’d love to have a try at your 5 mile walks … they sound positively electric. You are outta sight.” Signed, Janis Joplin.
And then there was Sylvia Plath. When she entered Room 206 in September 1947, she was a 14-year-old sophomore who shyly and secretly wrote poems; when she left three years later she was a published author on her way to winning the Pulitzer Prize.
She called theirs one of the handful of most important relationships of her life. During that terrible Bell Jar summer in McLean Hospital after her suicide attempt, she refused all visitors except for two: the woman who was paying her bills, and the man she called “my own Mr. Crockett.” Two or three times a week he came to be with her in her mute emptiness, trying to help her find her beloved words again by bringing her anagrams. Years later, she told her mother, “I would not be here if it weren’t for Mr. Crockett.” When her first volume of poetry, The Colossus, was published, she send an advance copy to him, inscribed “For Mr. Crockett — in whose classroom and wisdom these poems have root.”
He was crowned with many local and national awards he neither sought nor celebrated. What he cherished were the tributes from those who cherished him. Perhaps most extraordinarily, one day in the 1950s he walked out of his front door to find a two-tone brown and pea green car covered with an enormous bow, a gift from the students who knew he couldn’t afford one, and who hid behind it to watch his reaction.
When the high school built a new library in 1983, three years after his retirement, of course it was dedicated to him. As speaker after speaker praised him with gushing and Shakespearean eloquence, plain-spoken “Vera dear” shook her head and said, “Why don’t we just adjourn this thing and take him over to Lake Waban and let him walk across the water.”
Twenty-nine years later, at the 2012 ceremony when the library in the new high school was also dedicated to him, people ranging in age from teens to 80s crowded in for standing-room only. Many were fiercely devoted former colleagues who had been hired, mentored, and loved by him—his second family. “Family members” like his protégés Jeanie Eaton and Brooks Goddard (the rumor was that he’d hired them playing matchmaker), who met and married and spent their entire careers in the English department. Brooks succeeded him as chair, then was succeeded himself by Ronna Frick, another “Crocketteer.” So Mr. Crockett’s direct influence on the department continued for 30 more years.
In the weeks before his 1980 retirement, The Townsman published a passionate outpouring of more than 50 letters of tribute from former students in 16 states, representing almost all 36 years of his career. They were from former students who had become headmasters and principals, authors, professors and heads of college English departments, and Pulitzer Prize winners— or who ended up in unrelated fields but traced the shaping of their lives back to Room 206.
Louise Giesey White, ’50, wrote from Virginia that her 16-year-old son overheard her reminiscing about her years with Mr. Crockett and told her it was “pretty weird” for someone out of high school for 30 years to still be thinking about her English teacher. Not weird at all, she told him. “It’s a tribute to the enormous contribution he has made to my life.”
Sylvia Plath spoke for those whose lives were touched by Mr. Crockett when, in a tribute published before her 1963 death, she wrote words that now stand on a plaque at the door of the Wellesley High School library:
“Many of us can trace back our choice of college or career, our search after ‘the best that has been thought and said,’ and even the very principles of integrity that guide us, to our experience in Mr. Crockett’s class. An experience of inquiry and discovery not confined within classroom walls but reaching deeply into our minds and hearts. An experience outlasting any school year and lighting the rest of our lives. … Mr. Crockett is the teacher of a lifetime.”
(Reprinted from WellesleyWeston Magazine)